TYRANNICAL THE SECRETS OF SCIENTOLOGY
Tom Cruise lends Scientology an air of glamour, but an explosive book by
Lawrence Wright only now being published in Britain claims that behind
the facade is a church ruled by violence and intimidation, with beatings, ritual
humiliation and enforced abortions.
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Great fame imposes a kind of cloister on those who join its ranks.When he was 25, Tom Cruise was the biggest star in Hollywood, on his way to becoming one of the most famous movie legends in history. At around the same time in the mid-1980s, when he too was 25, David Miscavige became the de facto leader of Scientology.
Both young men assumed extraordinary responsibilities when their contemporaries
were barely beginning their careers. Their youth, power and isolation set them apart.
So it was natural that they would see themselves mirrored in each other when Scientology brought them together. Scientology plays an outsize role in the
cast of new religions that arose in the 20th century and have survived into the 21st. It is among the most stigmatised, owing to its eccentric cosmology, its vindictive behaviour towards critics and defectors, and the damage it has inflicted on families.
I was drawn to write about Scientology by the questions that many people ask: what is
it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? The Sea Org are the “clergy” of Scientology.
Miscavige, like many in Sea Org, was a childhood recruit. Tough,tireless and doctrinaire
he was rapidly promoted by the church’s founder, the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, and was in control by the time Hubbard died in 1986. That same year, Cruise’s first wife, the actress Mimi Rogers, introduced the movie star to Scientology. For several years he managed to keep his affiliation quiet.When Miscavige learnt of his involvement, he arranged to have Cruise brought alone to Gold Base, Scientology’s secret desert location near Hemet, California, in August 1989. Cruise arrived wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, trying to keep a low profile.
Cruise, who was preparing to make Days of Thunder,had just met a 21-year-old Australian actress, Nicole Kidman,and they had an immediate, intense connection, which quickly became a subject of tabloid speculation. According to Marty Rathbun, a former senior Sea Org member, getting rid of Mimi was in the interests of the church. Rathbun claims that he took her the divorce papers.“I told her this was the right thing to do for Tom,because he was going to do lots of good for Scientology,” Rathbun recalled. “That was the end of Mimi Rogers.” Former Sea Org members who had
observed Cruise at Gold Base remarked that he seemed liberated to be in an environment where no one hassled him or asked for autographs.
Gold Base can sometimes feel like a secret celebrity spa. There are cottages built
for the use of other well-known Scientologists such as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley,
Edgar Winter and Priscilla Presley.
The style of Miscavige’s life, after he became associated with Cruise, began to
reflect that of a fantastically wealthy and leisured movie star. His habit became to wake
at noon with a cup of coffee and a Camel cigarette. Then he would take breakfast, the first of his five meals prepared by two full-time stewards. When guests such as Cruise came to dinner, the kitchen went into extravagant bursts of invention, with ingredients sometimes flown in from different continents. As he welcomed Cruise and Kidman
further into Scientology, Miscavige showed his instinctive understanding of how to cater to the sense of entitlement that comes with great stardom. A special bungalow was prepared for their stay at Gold Base, along with a private rose garden.
When the couple longed to play tennis, a court was provided at significant expense. Miscavige heard about their fantasy of running through a field of wildflowers together, so he had Sea Org members plant a section of the desert; when that failed to meet his
expectations the meadow was ploughed up and turf was laid. At first Cruise and Kidman seemed like the ideal Scientology power match. They were intelligent, articulate, extraordinarily attractive people. Although she didn’t share his obvious enthusiasm
for Scientology—she was a cooler personality in any case — she was drawn along by his intensity.
THE Cruise connection is, however, only one glamorous face of Scientology. Marty Rathbun, who claims he had helped to kill off Cruise’s marriage to Mimi Rogers, is a significant figure in telling a much darker story. By the turn of the millennium, the
Cruise-Kidman marriage was also coming to an end and they were divorced in 2001. At around the same time, Rathbun spent a year and a half at Flag, a Scientology base in Florida.
When he returned to Gold Base in California in 2003, he was shocked by what he found.
All communications into and out of the base had been cut off. Miscavige had several of his top executives confined to the Watchdog Committee headquarters —a pair of mobile homes that had been joined together. By the end of the year the number living there under guard had grown to about 40 or 50 people. It was now called the Hole.
Except for one long conference table there was no furniture — no chairs or
beds — so they had to eat standing up and sleep on the floor, which was swarming with ants. In the morning they were marched outside for group showers with a hose, then back to the Hole. Their meals were a slop of reheated leftovers. When desert temperatures hit 38C, Miscavige turned off the electricity, letting them roast inside the locked quarters.
Miscavige, who is known in the church as leader and “COB” (chairman of the board), ordered them to stay until they finally had rearranged the “Org Board” — the church’s organisational chart — to his satisfaction, which was never achieved.Photographs of Sea Org personnel were continually moved from one position to another on the chart,
The entire base became
paralysed with anxiety.
whispered to a spouse
were regularly betrayed
which meant people were constantly being reassigned to different posts, whimsically, and no post was secure. About 900 positions needed to be filled at Int and Gold Bases and the stack of personnel and ethics files was 5ft high. This anarchic process had been going on more or less intensively for four years. At odd, unpredictable hours, often
in the middle of the night, Miscavige would show up in the Hole, often accompanied by his wife and his communicator, Laurisse Stuckenbrock, each of whom carried a tape
recorder to take down whatever Miscavige had to say. The detainees could hear the drumbeat of the shoes as Miscavige’s entourage marched towards the Hole. The leader demanded that the executives engage in endless hours of confessions about their crimes and failures in this and previous lives,as well as whatever dark thoughts they might be harbouring against him. Sometimes these were sexual fantasies that would be written up in a report, which Miscavige would then read aloud to other church officials.
The entire base became paralysed with anxiety about being thrown into the Hole. People were trying desperately to police their thoughts, but it was difficult to keep secrets when staff members were constantly being security checked with “e-meters”, electronic devices used by Scientologists in frequent “auditing” sessions. After one of Miscavige’s lengthy rants, transcripts were delivered to the executives in the Hole,who had to read them aloud to one another repeatedly. Mike Rinder was in the Hole for two years, even though he continued to be the church’s chief spokesman. Bizarrely, he would sometimes be pulled out and ordered to conduct a press conference or to put on a tuxedo and jet off to a Scientology gala; then he would be returned to confinement.
He and other executives were made to race around the room on their hands and bare knees, day after day, tearing open scabs on their knees and leaving permanent scars. When another executive spoke up about the violence, he was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bath room floor with his tongue.
The detainees developed a particular expression whenever Miscavige came in, which he took note of. He called them “Pie Faces”. To illustrate what he meant, Miscavige drew a circle with two dots for eyes and a straight line for a mouth. He had T-shirts made up with the pie face on it.Rinderwas“the Father of Pie Faces”. People didn’t know how
to react. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves, but they also didn’t want to be a Pie Face.
In Scientology there is a phrase that explains mob psychology: contagion of aberration, meaning groups of people can stimulate one another to do things that are insane. According to former church executives, one day Miscavige arrived at the Hole and demanded that Marc Yager, the commanding officer of the Commodore’s Messengers Org, and Guillaume Lesevre, the executive director of the Church of Scientology
International, confess that they were homosexual lovers. Rathbun was seen as Miscavige’s chief enforcer. During meetings in the Hole or else where on the base,he would stand to one side and glare at his colleagues while, he says, Miscavige berated and abused them. Although he was physically intimidating, Rathbun was suffering from a number of physical ailments, including a bad back, gallstones, calcium deposits in his neck and painful varicose veins, which he believed came from having to stand at
attention for hours on end. He was prone to bursts of sudden violence. “Once, on a phone call, I saw him get so mad that he put his fist right through a computer screen,” his former wife recalled.
Miscavige would send him down to observe what was going on in the Hole and comeback with reports. In January 2004, when Rinder was accused of withholding a confession from the group, Rathbun took him outside and beat him up. Rathbun says Miscavige wasn’t satisfied. Rathbun alleges that Miscavige called him into his massive
office in the Religious Technology Centre, a room with steel walls and 18ft ceilings, and accused him of letting Rinder “get away with murder.” Then, according to Rathbun, out of nowhere Miscavige grabbed him by the throat and slammed his head against the
steel wall. Rathbun blacked out for a moment. He wasn’t hurt, but the terms found himself in the Hole, along with the entire international management team and other executives. Miscavige said they were going to stay there until they got the Org Board done.
Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is their own fault, so much of the discussion in the Hole centred on what they had done to deserve this fate. The possibility that the leader of the church might be irrational or even insane was so taboo that no one could even think it, much less voice it aloud. Most of the people in the Hole had a strong allegiance to the group and they didn’t want to let their comrades down. Many had been in the Sea Org their entire adult lives and portions of their childhood. They had already surrendered the possibility of ordinary family life. Sex outside marriage was taboo, so many members married in their teens; but, since 1986,
children have been forbidden. Former church executives say that abortions were common and forcefully encouraged. Claire Headley, a former Scientologist,who married at 17, claims that by the time she was 21 she had been pushed to have two abortions. She estimates that 60-80% of the women on Gold Base have had abortions: “It’s a constant practice.”
ONE evening at about eight o’clock, Miscavige arrived with his wife and his communicator flanking him as usual with tape recorders in their hands. He
ordered that the conference table be taken away and chairs be brought in for
everyone in the Hole—about 70 people at the time, including many of the most
senior people in the Sea Org.He asked if anyone knew what “musical chairs”
meant. In Scientology it refers to frequent changes of post. About 500 people had been
moved off their jobs in the past five years, creating anarchy in the management
structure. But that wasn’t the point he was trying to make. Finally, someone suggested it was also a game. Miscavige had him explain the rules: chairs are arranged in a circle and then, as the players march around them, one chair is removed.When the music stops, everybody grabs a seat. The one left standing is eliminated. Then the music
starts again.Miscavige explained that in this game the last person to grab a chair
would be the only one allowed to stay on the base; everyone else was to be “offloaded”—kicked out of the Sea Org — or sent away to the least desirable Scientology bases around the world.
Those whose spouses were not in the Hole would be forced to divorce. While Queen’s Greatest Hits played on a boom box, the church executives marched around and around, then fought for a seat when the music stopped. As the number of chairs
diminished, the game got more physical. The executives shoved and punched one another; clothes were torn; a chair was ripped apart. All this time the biting lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody floated over the saccharine melody:
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality.
One by one the detainees found themselves standing alone behind low cubicle walls, watching the surviving contestants desperately fighting to remain in the Hole rather than be sent off to God knows where. There was a clock over the door marking the hours that passed as the music played on and on, then suddenly stopped and the riot began again. The former executives allege that, as people fell out of the game, Miscavige had airline tickets for distant locations printed up for them at the base’s travel office. There were U-Haul trucks waiting outside to haul away their belongings. “Is it real to you now?” Miscavige teased. They were told that buses would be ready to leave at six in the morning. Many were in tears. “I don’t see anybody weeping for me,” Miscavige said. The utter powerlessness of everyone else in the room was made nakedly clear to them.The game continued until 4am, when a woman named Lisa Schroer grabbed the final chair.
The next morning the whole event was forgotten. No one went anywhere. A few days after the musical chairs episode, Miscavige ordered everyone in the Hole to stuff CDs into cases. At one point he began sharply interrogating Tom De Vocht, a former church official, who was shaken and stuttered in response. De Vocht claims that Miscavige
punched him in the face.He felt his head vibrate. He tried to turn away from the
next blow, but Miscavige grabbed his neck and shoved him to the floor, pummelling and kicking him. De Vocht had served Miscavige for years and had even considered him a friend. He had dedicated his life to Scientology and had been in the Sea Org for nearly 30 years. He recalls thinking: “No where I am,being beat up by the top dog in front of my peers.”
After the attack Miscavige continued his speech. De Vocht was so humiliated
that he couldn’t bring himself to look at his companions. Finally he managed a
glance at them. Pie faces. Rathbun was there and at that moment he made a decision. As the other executives were being led back to the Hole, he slipped away and got
his motorcycle and hid in the bushes. When a car finally approached, he
raced through the open gate into the outside world. The Church of Scientology denies
all charges of abuse by Miscavige and denies that anyone in the Sea Org has ever been pressured to have an abortion. In a statement published to coincide with the release of Going Clear in 2013, the Church of Scientology called the book “ludicrous . . . fiction”
and a “stale rehash of allegations disproven long ago”. Visit tinyurl.com/
scientologystatement to read the statement in full.
©Lawrence Wright 2016
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright will be published in paperback on Thursday by
Silvertail Books at £15.99. Copies can be ordered for £13.99, including postage,
from The Sunday Times Bookshop on 0044845 271 2134
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